The 2016 election forced on us a new past, a hidden past, a past for which we don’t have a good history. The institutions most responsible for supplying us with historical accounts have failed, mostly because they wrote stories that justified their political commitments. But the past is not as dead as we assume and when we write the stories about our past that justify what we already believe, we eventually confront a deeper reality, forged by people, events, and circumstances largely invisible in our sanctioned histories. When confronted with a serious challenge to our narrative, most of us double down on the history we know.
Consider some examples from the historical profession. Taking American Conservatism seriously did not come easily to the profession, but the political rise of American conservatism required some rethinking of the past. Over the last four decades historians have done serious, empirical, work on what they often call “the right” in America. Studying subjects as varied as the social history of the Republican Party, the influence of evangelical Christians, the conservative intellectual movement, has led to professional success for many and a maturing body of historical literature. The key institutions of the profession now regularly try to sort out this literature and assess how they are dealing with what to them is an alien part of our nation.
One example is suggestive of the profession’s angst. In its December 2011 issue, the Journal of American History published a series of essays examining “Conservatism: A State of the Field.” Similar symposia, published over the last three decades, contain a version of this staple of self-analysis, written by Kim Phillips-Fein: “there is a tendency [by historians] to normalize the political world view of the Right, to treat even its most outlandish and radical ideas with patience.” Wilfred McClay rightly noted, in his contribution to the symposium, that had this been said of liberals that they would justifiably be outraged.
For the Left the otherness of Conservatives is the starting place of their analysis.
This was before the election of Donald Trump. What happens to leftist historians of conservatism who thought that they knew this movement, could understand its dynamics, could anticipate its reactions, when, suddenly, frighteningly, they face a completely unexpected reality? Look to Rick Perlstein’s mea culpa in the New York Times for a hint. Perlstein, a very accomplished historian of recent American conservatism, claims that he has been wrong about his subject all these years. Seduced by the normal-acting public faces of the movement, like Buckley and Reagan, he and others had allowed themselves to believe that these conservatives were within the circle of respectable people. But now he knows he was wrong. The beating heart of American conservatism is….wait for it….racism.
The fortuitous appearance this year of Nancy MacLean’s book, Democracy in Chains, confirms that the darkest fears leftist historians have harbored about conservatism are in fact true. The normalizing narratives by a generation of overly-generous historians can be safely forgotten. A new history will trace what her subtitle announces: “the deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America.” In this case a mild mannered libertarian economist, James Buchanan, appears to be a respectable scholar, but he is really quite deplorable and part of a “stealth plan” to preserve white privilege.
Timing is everything, I’m told, and MacLean’s book offers the most comforting narrative for the left to explain the entirely unpredictable victory of Donald Trump. This new history allows one to shed the complicating histories and the empirical work upon which they stand, and prepares one to name, target, and fight the enemy. Because the new history reveals stealth plans, deep purposes completely at odds with someone’s public pronouncements, or even lifetime of scholarship, it simplifies in such a way as to remove all moral ambiguity as applied to conservatives.
This new history will not deeply influence the historians who specialize in the field for long, though it may cast a long shadow—as Howard Zinn did—on the left-wing illuminati. But even academic historians, largely removed from the people that this narrative characterizes, must confront a social and political reality that introduces doubt, and this doubt will necessarily introduce complexity into their accounts.
If liberal and leftist academics who rely on these historical accounts struggle with a newly revealed past, an even bigger struggle faces the intellectual and political leadership of Republican Party and its myriad institutional supports. Until 2016 they had operated with a cozy history that made it possible for these elites to believe that they spoke the language of the American people—the vast middle of America that affirms low taxes, free markets and globalization, and American exceptionalism.
If the Tea Party was annoying, they had no place to go: They would be incorporated safely into the system. Or so thought the Republican stalwarts. If the rise of Obama posed a threat to their influence, Republican leaders were unperturbed because they had only wait for a new Reagan to marshal the members of the coalition into a powerful voting block. In the meantime, after decades of Republican power and institution building, the system still worked for most of them. They could afford, as American workers could not, to wait and to anticipate. After all, they were convinced that they held the keys to a new age of prosperity and American hegemony—it was only an election away.
Trump destroyed this history as Obama did not. These Republicans have nothing to replace it. They know little of the complex history of American conservatism because they have ossified it into an ideology appropriate to the Cold War. Their ideology provides them with the simple security of believing that they had inherited the absolute or defining center of American politics, against all evidence. Lost to them is the rich intellectual and cultural heritage of a deep conservatism. Lost to them is the experiences of laboring Americans who have lost both jobs and once thriving communities. Meanwhile, the cultural and moral angst of middle class Americans who live between a hostile culture/media elite and their religious and communal relationships are, these Republican leaders believe, ephemeral. Economic prosperity will drive away all those fears born of social change.
The opportunity for a better history is now upon us. Because events have forced on us parts of the past that were invisible or poorly incorporated into our received history, we can see how we occupy a social and political reality that defies our causal explanations. We look back now and discover that something “permanent” was a product of a specific time and we can reach further into our past to detect historical continuities that explain better the baffling events of our time.
Our opportunity now is for a historical account that is more cosmopolitan and that supplies us with richer resources for us to take hold of today.
The past is always with us, but we rarely understand how or what kind of influence it has on our present. Bad histories distort the past and leave us crippled as we seek to understand and analyze our own time. But the collapse of our bad histories offers us an opportunity to reclaim the best currents of our past, to understand ourselves as a people with a partially known past, and to take some ownership of a morally conflicted inheritance.
Ted McAllister is the Edward L. Gaylord Chair of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, and consults on their “American Project: On the Future of Conservatism